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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

April 2, 1993

Air Date: April 2, 1993


Rice Farmers Create Bird Habitat / Cy Musiker

Cy Musiker reports from California's Sacramento Valley on an experimental project in which rice farmers are flooding their fields in the winter to provide habitat for birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway. Much of the wintering grounds along the flyway has been lost in recent years to development. (07:30)

Eagles Return - An Endangered Species Act Success Story / V.J. Gibson

V.J. Gibson of Jefferson Public Radio in Oregon visits the Klamath River National Wildlife Refuge, home to the largest population of bald eagles outside of Alaska. (05:21)

Making a Difference Contest Promo


Teen Eco-Activists Lobbey High School Peers / Adam Hochberg

Adam Hochberg of member station KUNC reports on Youth for Environmental Sanity, a group of teenagers who bring a message of environmental activism to high schools around the country. (This is the first in our month-long "Making a Difference" series. (06:45)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Pye Chamberlaine, Laura Knoy, Betsy Bayha, Cy Musiker, V. J. Gibson, Adam Hochberg

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Each spring fewer and fewer migratory birds are heading north along the US flyways, due in part to the loss of their winter habitats. But in California they're creating new nesting areas, with winter floods on rice farms.

PAYNE: There's lots of pintails, mallard, teal, gadwalls, widgeon, almost all the puddleducks that you can find in the Pacific Flyway you'll find right here in the rice fields of the Sacramento Valley.

CURWOOD: Also, teenage eco-activists take their message to high schools around the country. They say that's where they can make the biggest difference.

ROBBINS: To me, youths are like the frogs that have been dropped into boiling water. The environmental crisis is very hot. Whereas I think a lot of times older people may not quite have such an easy time grasping the severity of the crisis.

CURWOOD: That and more this week on Living on Earth, right after this news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley with this week's environmental news.

A key environmental reform, included in President Clinton's budget plans, could be a casualty of political deal-making. Higher fees for grazing and mining on public lands, intended to enhance resource conservation, have been put on hold, in an agreement with Western senators. Pye Chamberlaine reports from Washington.

CHAMBERLAINE: Western Democrats from New Mexico, Montana, Nevada, and Colorado are crucial to the President's economic plan in the Senate. They told him, in effect, that he could not count on their votes for his tax increases and spending cuts, if he imposed what they consider disastrous fees on mines, ranches and farms. At the President's direction the new fees were dropped from the budget. These fees will be proposed again as separate items. Democratic Senator Bumpers of Arkansas, for example, has pending legislation to impose the mining fees. But the President will need these Western votes over and over this year, and while the grazing and mining fees may come up, there's an understanding that the President and Democratic leaders will make sure they don't pass this year. After that, it's a new ball game. For Living on Earth, I'm Pye Chamberlaine in Washington.

NUNLEY: The US plans to resume funding international population control projects that include abortion counseling. The move reverses a decade-long ban by the Reagan and Bush administrations. President Clinton's new budget includes money for the UN Fund for Population Activities and the International Planned Parenthood Federation, as long as their programs don't involve coerced abortions, or sterilization. Many environmental groups say the US should fund international family planning to help curb population growth. Anti-abortion groups promise a court fight over the policy change.

A group of parents has sued 88 US and Mexican corporations operating in Mexico, claiming pollution on the Texas-Mexico border caused their babies to be born without brains. The parents of 16 such children say toxic wastes, dumped in local air and water, caused the rare birth defects.

The US Civil Rights Commission is probing the EPA's enforcement record for possible racial bias. The action follows reports that the agency provides less protection against pollution to minority communities than it does to white communities. Laura Knoy reports from Washington.

KNOY: The US Civil Rights Commission has sent a letter to EPA Administrator Carol Browner, with 19 questions on EPA policy on civil rights and the environment. Minority groups have long charged their communities are often chosen as sites for toxic waste dumps and smokestacks. Several studies, including one EPA report, suggest minorities do suffer more from pollution. A commission official says the investigation is preliminary. Based on EPA's response to the letter, the official says the Commission could conduct a full-blown inquiry with public hearings. EPA officials are not challenging the investigation. In a recent speech, Administrator Browner said environmental equity is an area that requires a lot of attention. For Living on Earth, I'm Laura Knoy in Washington.

NUNLEY: This is Living on Earth.

India has refused a World Bank loan for a controversial dam project on the Narmada River. The decision came on the eve of a bank-imposed deadline for compliance with environmental standards. The project's three thousand dams would provide drinking water and electricity for 30 million people, but they would also flood the homes of over 100,000 people and the habitats of several endangered species. The funds were just a small fraction of the project's budget, and the Indian government says it will proceed on schedule. But opponents say the loss of the World Bank money will make new funding difficult to secure.

The EPA has released a long-delayed set of guidelines to limit toxic pollutants entering the Great Lakes. The guidelines are the first to require the eight Great Lakes states to establish common pollution standards. The agency says the new rules will take a quantum leap toward cleaning up toxic pollution in the lakes.

Northern California's largest utility has teamed up with San Francisco's rapid transit system to develop what it says is one of the cleanest commutes in the country. The two have installed an electric vehicle recharging terminal at a subway station 25 miles east of San Francisco. From member station KQED, Betsy Bayha reports.

BAYHA: The electric vehicle battery charger is part of a one-year pilot project, designed to increase public awareness. Under the program, employees of Pacific Gas and Electric will ride an electric commuter van to the subway station, then take the train to work. During the day, the van will be plugged into the battery recharging terminal, so it will be fully powered for the trip home. PG & E Vice President for Marketing Norm Brian.

BRIAN: We hope that in the future, as electric vehicles become more commonplace, you'll see more of these charging stations and the general populace will be able to come in and charge their electric vehicles while they commute.

BAYHA: The $150,000 project is designed to help California meet its clean air goals, the strictest in the nation. For Living on Earth, I'm Betsy Bayha in San Francisco.

NUNLEY: That's this week's environmental news, I'm Jan Nunley.

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(Theme music up and under)

Rice Farmers Create Bird Habitat

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

Each spring the great American flyways are quieter than the year before; the cacophony of migratory birds muted by the steady decline of their numbers. Development is a major culprit, and stopping development in crucial areas is often seen as the only solution. But another approach is being tried in California. Rice farmers, long considered environmental villains by some, are learning to share their croplands with migrating ducks and geese. And in the process, they're also learning to share one of the state's most precious resources: water. Cy Musiker has our story.

(Sound of noisy room, traffic outside)

MUSIKER: From his office in San Francisco's North Beach, author Marc Reisner has been a relentless crusader for water policy reform in the West. Among his chief targets have been California rice farmers. It's crazy, he used to write, to grow a monsoon crop such as rice in a state where it doesn't rain six months out of the year. So Reisner was surprised not long ago when a group of rice farmers invited him for a visit.

REISNER: I went on the theory that, you know, you should always get to know your enemies, in order to dislike them even more.

MUSIKER: But Reisner went during the winter, and what he saw led him to change his mind -- huge flocks of ducks and geese, hawks and herons, who make winter homes in the rice fields and nearby refuges during California's rainy season.

REISNER: So I decided that it was really important to try to keep the rice industry in business, and one way to do that was to let them wear the white hat, and then move them in the direction of environmental restoration and sustainability.

MUSIKER: Reisner, who's now working for the Nature Conservancy, knew that the Sacramento Valley, the northern half of California's great Central Valley, is a major section of the Pacific Flyway, a migratory path stretching from the Arctic to Mexico. But in the last two decades, duck and geese populations throughout North America have plunged as winter habitat has disappeared. What if, the rice farmers suggested to Marc Reisner, what if the farms could grow rice in the summer and become waterfowl refuges in the winter?

(Sound of ducks flocking, quacking)

MUSIKER: We've just spooked about a thousand ducks from a flooded rice field near Maxwell, California. The soils throughout the area are heavy clay, not well suited to other crops, but easy to keep flooded for rice or birds. It's a drizzly morning in late winter, and many of the waterfowl have already started their migration north. Earlier in the day we passed a couple of thousand snow geese on a neighboring farm.

PAYNE: These fields have high diversity, there's a lot of pintails, mallards, teal, gadwalls, widgeon, almost all the puddle ducks that you can find on the Pacific Flyway, you'll find right here on the rice fields in the Sacramento Valley.

MUSIKER: That's Jack Payne. He's a wildlife biologist with the conservation group D.U., Ducks Unlimited, and one of the men in charge of the Ricelands Habitat venture. That's the birds and rice experiment the farmers have organized with D.U. , the Nature Conservancy, the National Audubon Society, and other groups. Migratory waterfowl have always been attracted to the abundant waste rice in the fields after the fall harvest. But Jack Payne guides us to the edge of the field and plunges his hand into six inches of water and mud to show us something else.

PAYNE: You see a lot of fly larvae, small maggot-like critters that are very important. Now here is a small annelid worm, that a duck would find as an important morsel.

MUSIKER: When the fields are flooded, Payne says, they produce a whole new food chain for migratory birds. So the ducks and geese are happy with the experiment, but you might be wondering why the farmers should be taking such a keen interest in the well-being of birds. The big motivator is a new state pollution law that requires growers to phase out the traditional practice of burning the rice stubble, or straw, after the fall harvest. Rice straw is incredibly tough, and doesn't rot if it's just plowed into the soil. But over the years, a few growers had noticed that the straw would rot if they used an experimental device called a cage roller to smush down the straw, then invited the ducks and geese into the fields to Cuisinart the stubble with their feet. Doug McGeoghan has 220 acres in the habitat experiment. It's his rice field we've been visiting.

McGEOGHAN: It's hard to really believe. If you'd seen how much by-product straw there was behind the combine in October, and you looked at the field floor right now, it's, for all practical purposes, it's gone.

MUSIKER: McGeoghan is a committed birder and duck hunter who's pioneered the cage roller technique over the past few years. He notes that the tens of thousands of ducks and geese seem also to be making his fields more productive.

McGEOGHAN: Normally we'd put on about 160 pounds of nitrogen through the course of the growing season. We put on about 130 on this field and still produced a crop that was 15% higher than the state average, so everything sort of seems to be working.

MUSIKER: McGeoghan and wildlife biologist Jack Payne have found other rice farmers just as enthusiastic to join the project. They've signed up twice the acreage they'd expected to and other growers are having similar success. If the farmers are showing a rare willingness to experiment, environmentalists are making an equally dramatic change in embracing agriculture as an ally. Jack Payne's job is to find privately held land that can be enhanced for waterfowl. He says he'll gladly take rice farms over natural habitat if the alternative is suburban development.

PAYNE: The demographers tell us that we currently have 33 million people in California. By the year 2015, we're going to have over 50 million. The L.A. Basin's full, San Francisco's full. Where are these people going to go? Well, the most obvious place is the Central Valley. Where are these birds going to go when these people start to move into the valley? That's my main concern.

MUSIKER: The project is driven by still other concerns. Six years of drought in California have focused the state's attention on how little water there really is to go around.

WHEELER: There is no surplus water in California today.

MUSIKER: Doug Wheeler is California's Secretary of Resources. He administers the state's enormous water distribution system, most of which is devoted to taking rain and snow from the northern Sierras and shipping it south for farm and urban use. Even with the end of the drought, Wheeler notes, every farmer, fish, bird, and city dweller will have to accept a smaller piece of the water pie.

WHEELER: What we're trying to do here is to make better use, in fact triple or quadruple use of whatever water is available to farmers. And so we're not using it just for rice, we're using it for waterfowl habitat, we're using it to solve an air quality problem. And we're using these fields to store water, such that it can be reused for downstream consumpters.

MUSIKER: Despite all these endorsements, some very big questions remain about the project. Where's all the water going to come from to flood what could be 200,000 acres of ricelands a year? Fall water diversions could also endanger the winter Chinook salmon runs in the Sacramento River. Their numbers have dropped to a thousand fish, all told, and the Chinook have been declared an endangered species. On the other hand, spring water releases could help the spring-run Chinook.

(Sound of flock rising from ground)

MUSIKER: Still, the Ricelands Habitat venture is gathering a lot of momentum. And it points the way to California's water future. It used to be that when a city or group of farmers wanted more water, they just convinced a government agency to build another dam. But those days are over in the West, and farmers, city dwellers and wildlife advocates are going to have to find ways to better share the water they have. For Living on Earth, I'm Cy Musiker in Maxwell, California.

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(Fade out sound of flock)

Eagles Return - An Endangered Species Act Success Story

CURWOOD: Along with ducks, geese and other migratory waterfowl, the Pacific Flyway is also traveled by America's most revered bird: the bald eagle. Twenty years ago, when the Endangered Species Act was passed, the bald eagle was at the verge of extinction in most states. But today, there are over 3300 nesting pairs, and the largest portion of them outside of Alaska make their winter homes on a part of the Pacific Flyway known as the Klamath Basin, in Southern Oregon. The return of the bald eagle to the Klamath Basin is one of the few unqualified success stories surrounding the otherwise controversial Endangered Species Act. Reporter V.J. Gibson of member station KSOR in Ashland, Oregon filed this report.

(Sound of researchers counting)

GIBSON: It's startling to watch the bald eagles fly out from the Bear Valley roost in the Klamath National Wildlife Refuge. Early on this chilly morning, eagle researchers stand in freezing temperatures to count 180 adult and sub-adult eagles in a single half-hour, flying from their nests to the feeding ground. Oregon Fish and Wildlife spokesman Ralph Opp spends a significant portion of his professional and private life in bald eagle study.

OPP: It's the waterfowl that they key in on. This is a major resting place, for some of 'em a major wintering place for the Pacific Flyway. We get over 80% of all the waterfowl that fly up and down the Pacific Flyway funneled right through the Klamath Basin still.

GIBSON: Eagles have been wintering in this area for thousands of years. The refuge straddles the Oregon-California border, following the broad basin created by vast wetlands surrounding the Klamath River. In the 70's land rush, when land was at a premium and everyone wanted it for their own use, land was set aside, providing a safe place for eagles to winter and increase their numbers. The protected area has grown since 1978 to nearly 4200 acres. Opp says eagles coordinate their migration with the waterfowl migratory path, their primary food source. He says as many as one thousand bald eagles come each winter to the Klamath Basin. The first eagles arrive in November. The largest concentration is in February and March. Each morning the eagles leave their night roosts and swoop down over the wetlands in search of easy prey.

OPP: Yeah, what they're doing now, they got onto the valley floor out here and hang around the waterfowl that are out here, all of the ducks, geese and swans, and they pick up the dead ones that have died from a variety of causes or they'll go out and kill something themselves.

GIBSON: Grain fields, flooded in winter for irrigation and rodent control, are part of the waterfowl refuge and provide an additional food source. Farmers harvest all or part of the grain under a cooperative agreement with the refuge. At night the eagles return to old-growth timber stands near the Klamath Basin. Bald eagles use five night-roost areas that edge the basin, the Bear Valley being the largest. Experts feel the preservation of these forests is the key to the steadily increasing number of bald eagles, as well as other species like the spotted owl. Ralph Opp says night roosts provide the birds with warmth and seclusion.

OPP: It provides 'em big trees to perch in, and this is a real key thing, it takes a big tree to handle a twelve-pound bird. Now here's a couple playing up here -- ooh, wow, they're all over the place here -- five, six birds, seven, eight birds right there. But the roost will provide 'em with those big trees and snags that they need and like to roost in and they'll bunch up in the trees.

GIBSON: Private timber owners manage their adjacent land for the benefit of bald eagles. They receive no payment from the government, but are more than rewarded by community goodwill created by their efforts. The successful comeback of the bald eagle here and elsewhere, has prompted interest in some states to delist or downlist the eagle from endangered to threatened. But University of Oregon eagle expert Frank Isaacs says that would mean less protection available, and make the eagle more vulnerable to economic activity and development decisions.

ISAACS: If we don't have enough money to continue monitoring, and we don't have enough money to finish the planning processes we've started, we could start losing ground. To me the future problem is the loss of habitat, because eagles are increasing, they're recolonizing some of their old places, but human populations are also still increasing, so those lines are gonna cross somewhere and somebody's gotta decide how many bald eagles we're going to have.

GIBSON: The bald eagles and waterfowl in the Klamath Basin don't exist in isolation. Habitat for migrating birds has become a collective problem, and the US Forest Service has already begun efforts to manage habitat nationally and internationally, to avoid the extinction of any migratory species. Only with broad cooperation can the Klamath Wildlife Refuge continue to thrive. For Living on Earth, I'm V.J. Gibson.

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(Fade out sound of wild birds into music up and under)

Making a Difference Contest Promo

CURWOOD: What would you do to make a difference for the environment if you were President?

VOICE ONE: I'd educate the young people, and tell people they need to bike to work.
VOICE TWO: I'd concentrate on trying to bring down the CO2 levels we produce.
VOICE THREE: I'd encourage people to recycle more.
VOICE FOUR: I would stop them from cutting the rainforests down.

CURWOOD: Let us know -- enter the Living on Earth "Making a Difference" contest, in cooperation with Stonyfield Farm Yogurt. Write a story, poem , letter, song or rap. Tell us in 500 words or less what you'd do to improve the environment of your community, the country or the planet. First prize for adults is a ten-day trip for two to the rainforests and national parks of Costa Rica, courtesy of Overseas Adventure Travel, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and specializing in ecotourism treks, safaris and rainforest expeditions around the world. Some travel restrictions apply. First prize for kids under 18 is a thousand-dollar savings bond and a gift certificate for a bicycle, and a helmet. Written and recorded entries must be postmarked by May 1st. For details on the Living on Earth "Making a Difference" contest, call Living on Earth at 617-868-7454, or write to us at Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02238.

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(Music up and out)

Teen Eco-Activists Lobbey High School Peers

CURWOOD: It's our anniversary month here at Living on Earth -- we're two years old. And to celebrate, we'll be focusing this month on some people and groups that are making a difference in the environment. We begin the series this week in Greensboro, North Carolina. That's where reporter Adam Hochberg caught up with a group of teenagers who are taking their message of environmental activism on the road, to high schools around the country. They call themselves Youth for Environmental Sanity.

(Sound of students entering auditorium)

HOCHBERG: On this day at Eastern Guilford High School, students are getting a rare break from their teachers and textbooks. For an hour this afternoon, classes have been cancelled, and all 700 students have been ushered to the school auditorium for a crash course in environmental activism.

WAGNER : As far as we know, Earth is the only living planet containing air, water and land. Are we taking these three elements for granted?

HOCHBERG: Two members of Youth for Environmental Sanity, 19-year-old Lisa Wagner and 18-year-old Paris Gallagher, have come to Eastern Guilford to preach to teenagers about the environment. Their message goes well beyond just encouraging students to recycle or clean up roadsides. YES members tell young people that the best way to improve the environment is to become active in social and political causes.

WAGNER: Ecological issues like ozone depletion and deforestation and water pollution are only like one piece to a much larger puzzle of what the environment is. There are also social issues like racism and AIDS and poverty. It's also politics, like there are things like free-trade agreements, that really affect our environment, 'cause there's some towns called maquiladoras and these corporations go in there and they set up toxic waste sites, and what's happening are a lot of peoples' babies are being born without brains.

HOCHBERG: Lisa Wagner is a Texas native who joined YES after she saw the group put on a presentation in her home town. She and Gallagher are among 14 people in the organization. Some go on the road to appear in schools, others work at an office in Santa Cruz, California, raising money and arranging activities such as summer camps for young people interested in the environment. All YES members are younger than 21, and most are vegetarians. Their show includes a strongly worded sermon about the evils of eating meat.

("Cow Rap" music up and under)

HOCHBERG: Gallagher, who says his goal is to become the first Black President of the United States, tells his audience that cattle farming is the cause of many of the world's ecological problems, such as water pollution and the cutting of tropical rain forests. He says 40,000 children die of malnutrition every day, but that most of the grain produced in the United States goes to feed livestock.

GALLAGHER: I know that if the United States reduces its beef consumption only ten percent, by only ten percent, we could free up enough grain to feed every man, woman and child on this planet. I know that.

HOCHBERG: The YES tour is the brainchild of 19-year-old Ocean Robbins, the son of environmental activist John Robbins. Ocean says he decided to start the tour three years ago, after he began to feel frustrated about the world's environmental problems.

ROBBINS: One day I was getting really depressed, and a friend and I, we were walking on the beach together, talking about all this, and we said hey, let's do something about it. Let's actually change the world. So we came up with this bizarre idea, which was a national speaking tour, and it sounded crazy and a lot of our friends said, oh, good luck, and we decided, all right, we're going to do this, we've got to raise $90,000 in the next year, and here we are, it's happened.

HOCHBERG: Today, YES has an annual budget of $270,000, paid for in part by sponsors such as the Esprit clothing company and the hair-care product maker Aveda. Much of the information recited during YES presentations comes from the best-selling book that Robbins' father wrote: Diet for a New America. It also comes from environmental groups such as World Watch and Greenpeace. The YES tour tries to pass along that information in a way that teenagers can relate to, because Robbins is convinced that young people are better equipped than adults to change the world.

ROBBINS: If you drop a frog in boiling water it jumps out. If you drop a frog in lukewarm water and heat it up, it'll stay there until you save it. To me, youth are like the frogs that've been dropped into boiling water. The environmental crisis is very hot. It's very current. Whereas I think for a lot of times older people may not quite have such an easy time grasping the severity of the crisis, because for a lot of older generations they weren't born into it.

HOCHBERG: Still, the YES tour can't completely ignore adults. After all, adults such as teachers and principals must agree to allow the group to perform in their schools. There have been some problems. Gallagher says community leaders in some cities have been less than pleased when the YES tour has talked with teenagers about AIDS and condoms. And in parts of the country where a lot of cattle are raised, Robbins says he's heard complaints about the group's promotion of vegetarianism. But at Eastern Guilford High School, teachers were more supportive of the YES tour. History teacher Linda Hensley, who sponsors the school ecology club, says the YES presentation fit in well with the club's goals.

HENSLEY: In addition to recycling and cleaning highways, we are [ unclear ]. We wanted to make students more aware, and when this particular flyer came through I thought, this fits with our theme for the year, which is awareness. And the credentials this group sent out were fantastic.

HOCHBERG: After the YES show at Eastern Guilford, dozens of students came up to the stage to pick up brochures about the environment and buy YES buttons and other items. All the students we talked with after the show said it made them more aware of environmental issues.

STUDENT #1: I didn't know it was this bad, I think it's time we need to make a change, recycle and stuff. And I recycle.
HOCHBERG: Would you do anything more because of what you saw here?
STUDENT #1: I'd try to cut down on eating beef and stuff, so we'd have more rainforests so we can breathe.
STUDENT #2: I think I learned what everyone else learned, that it's a lot worse than we ever thought, and unless we do something it's going to get a lot worse and it's just going to keep on getting worse until there's nothing left.
STUDENT #3: It was highly educational. I'm going to save the planet, starting today.
HOCHBERG: What're you gonna do?
STUDENT #3: Recycle. Reuse, what's the other one? Recycle, reuse, reduce -- reduce, reuse and recycle.
HOCHBERG: What about that stuff about giving up hamburgers?
STUDENT #3: Can't do it. I eat five hamburgers in one day, [unclear] the roast beef.

HOCHBERG: Ocean Robbins says the YES tour has appeared before about 300,000 American high school students and is reaching new students at the rate of about 100,000 a year. The group also is starting to turn its attention overseas. YES tours are underway in Australia and New Zealand, with plans to expand into the United Kingdom and Costa Rica. For Living on Earth, I'm Adam Hochberg in Greensboro, North Carolina.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Living On Earth is produced and edited by Peter Thomson. The coordinating producer is George Homsy. Deborah Stavro directs the program, and our production team includes Kim Motylewski, Lucia Small, Chris Page and Colleen Singer Cox. Our engineers are Laurie Azaria, with help from Rita Sand and Monica Spain. Our intern is Reyna Lounsbury, and our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon.

Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with the Public Media Foundation and WBUR Boston. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

If you have any questions or comments about Living on Earth you can write to us at Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. That's Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Mass., 02238. Or give us a call on our listener comment line at 617-868-7454. That's 617-868-7454. Transcripts and tapes are available for ten dollars.

(Theme music up and under)

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